Coronavirus: We worry about physical health, what about mental health?

"Home confinement restricts freedom of movement and, therefore, is similar in some ways, to involuntary hospitalization or imprisonment."

Isolation room featuring a sensor that can monitor patients (photo credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)
Isolation room featuring a sensor that can monitor patients
(photo credit: SHEBA MEDICAL CENTER)
For many elderly, especially those living alone, receiving visits from children, grandchildren and friends are a key part of life. Giving up these visits is one of the most painful consequences of the coronavirus pandemic.
The public’s focus is on preventing the lethal virus from spreading further. But the question of how the contagion and lockdown have been affecting mental health remains crucial, especially for vulnerable groups, including those who struggle with depression or anxiety disorders, children and seniors.
“Home confinement restricts freedom of movement and, therefore, is similar in some ways to involuntary hospitalization or imprisonment,” Dr. Eli Somer, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus at the University of Haifa School of Social Work, told The Jerusalem Post. “However, what makes the current situation less damaging psychologically is the meaning assigned to it.”
“This circumstance is a shared, communal experience designed to save lives,” he said. “Still, there is a limit to how much can this state of affairs be tolerated with any comfort. Several factors can affect the mental health of those quarantined if the lockdown persists for much longer.”
Economic struggles, such as preexisting poverty, unemployment and the shutdown of private businesses, and uncertainty about the end date for limitations on movement and gatherings are problematic, Somer said.
Data on how the emergency is affecting mental-health issues is not available yet, he said, adding: “Crisis hotlines report a three-fold increase in phone calls, and reports on family violence against women have risen even more.”
Somer said he was mainly concerned about the manner in which information about the pandemic is disseminated by the government and the media.
“The general tone of government officials has been characterized too often by implications of a pending doom,” he said. “To increase public compliance with the social-distancing decrees, the gravity of the threat must indeed be clarified.
“However, leaders should do more to offer reassurance about the excellent chances of survival if measures are adhered to as well as offer more encouraging information about the post-pandemic future of the Israeli economy.”
“Furthermore, the media should be very thoughtful about ways to strike the right balance between accurate information on the pandemic and best ways to manage the threat and sensationalist reporting of financial ruin, hospital overload, despair, loss and grief,” he added.
Israelis will be able to overcome the crisis without too many permanent consequences, but the issue of impoverishment will need to be properly addressed by the authorities, Somer said. 
“We are a resilient people,” he said. “I think that for those who will not have endured irreversible financial ruin or loss of lives in their families, this period will not be a trigger for any significant psychological crises.
“Nonetheless, I see the unprecedented unemployment rate as a major mental-health risk. Many people in the tourism, food, entertainment and hospitality industries might be stripped off their financial assets. My prediction is that unless the government intervenes to prevent bankruptcies, we might witness an increase in suicide mortality similar to what happened in the Great Depression of the 1930s in the USA,” he told the Post.
As the emergency and home confinement continue, Somer warned against passivity.
“The current situation forces people to become passive in the face of threat,” he said. “However, passivity under threat is known to be conducive to post-traumatic distress. Our natural instinct in times of threat is to fight or flee. But neither of these options is currently available: People cannot flee the country, nor can they fight to eradicate the virus. My recommendation is that people should find ways to gain some control over their life.”
Setting up a new routine and structuring one’s time can be very helpful in this perspective, Somer said.
“Find tasks and challenges, such as tidying up the clutter in your room, digitizing your old photos, learning a new skill, etc.,” he said. “Take care of others who are more in need than you. Soothe your worried spouse, distract your children, call your elderly parents more often. These are all examples of adopting ways of coping that are related to better psychological outcomes.”
“The more psychologically vulnerable among us would do good to find ways to distract themselves from their pain by focusing on activities that offer relaxation and reward, connecting with their support system, reaching out to their therapists or seeking online psychological help.”